It’s been an interesting offseason so far for Damian Lillard.
Between winning an Olympic gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics and the constant rumors of “Will he or won’t he stay in Portland?”, Lillard has been busy taking down the best in the world and tuning out the noise that comes with being a ringless star that continues to preach loyalty to a city that has embraced him.
Depending on one’s perspective, Lillard has either had a solid career with the Portland Trail Blazers or deserves more. The six-time All-Star is one of the game’s most devastating scorers, something that he has done largely because he has had to carry the Blazers on a nightly basis for much of his career.
Despite his offensive outbursts in the regular season, he still has the capability of taking it up a notch in the playoffs, where he has taken over games and willed his team to victories. Even in losses, no lead is safe until the final buzzer sounds.
His career averages of 24.7 points (on .439/.375/.893 career shooting averages), 4.2 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.0 steals just tell part of the story. Beyond that, he has led his team in win shares (WS) for the past eight seasons, already emerging as second-all time for the Trail Blazers at 92.3, trailing only Clyde Drexler (108.7). Should he stay, it won’t be surprising to see him become the franchise WS leader apart from already being the team’s all-time leader in points per game and both 3-pointers made and attempted.
Lillard actually missed the playoffs only once in his career, which happened during his rookie season. That kind of consistency is not something to take lightly, especially in the uber-competitive Western Conference. Advancing into the latter stages, however, is another matter.
It’s usually the same story for him and Portland when it comes to moving onto the next stages of the postseason. Injuries and the ensuing consequences largely contributed to the disappointing playoff exits he has had to endure over the last eight postseasons. One can look the other way when it comes to their defensive issues in the regular season, but come playoff time, it becomes their greatest weakness. Not only have these issues persisted, but this also puts more of the burden on Lillard’s shoulders.
With things seemingly plateauing, the Blazers decided to shake things up by letting go of longtime head coach Terry Stotts and hiring 2004 Finals MVP and former Los Angeles Clippers assistant Chauncey Billups to take over.
How this season pans out will factor into his future, as the 2012-2013 Rookie of the Year has so far committed to the Trail Blazers for at least this season despite rumors and reported quotes that could indicate otherwise. After all, love (in this case for the city) is in deeds and not with some sweet words. Compared to his peers, Lillard has been much more patient with his organization, yet Portland’s front office have not made too many successful moves regarding trying to find the right combination for a winning formula.
The biggest swing the Blazers have done so far this offseason was in acquiring Larry Nance Jr. from the Cleveland Cavaliers by sending Derrick Jones Jr. and a lottery-protected first-round pick to the Chicago Bulls. Nance Jr. provides rebounding and athleticism at the 4-spot, and can at times serve as a small-ball five when needed. Moreover, his career-high 1.7 steals per game last season will be very much welcome in Portland as a team ranked 25th in the league in that department.
It may not be as flashy as the other offseason moves that other teams have pulled off so far but sometimes simple is what gets the job done. It’s up to Billups and the rest of his staff to put together a solid game plan moving forward.
All things considered, this makes the coming NBA season all the more important. The Trail Blazers have to pull out all the stops considering that Lillard, who has six All-NBA selections to his name, always puts out his best efforts regardless of the situation. Despite his superhuman on-court abilities and the mutual love between him and Portland, Lillard’s human after all. It will only be so long until a change of scenery becomes much more appealing than whatever his current circumstances will be once the season starts. Having a live contract isn’t a sure-fire guarantee of staying as these can be traded once the right offer comes along. Many of his peers and contemporaries (with contracts of varying terms) have already moved around, with Russell Westbrook, who was recently traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, already with his fourth team in as many seasons. With that being said, a championship is likely to be the only solution.
It’s make-or-break time for Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers. While they have achieved playoff consistency that isn’t to be taken lightly, they haven’t gone as well as they could (or in the eyes of Blazers fans should) given their personnel and talent. Dame Time has had some months to think and all eyes are on the Blazers to see how they will convince him that Rip City is where his heart should be.